I was well into adulthood when I realised that I had only been exposed to half of history. My textbooks were full of great men, despicable men, many in between, but few women. Once you took out the queens, there were hardly any left. To rebalance my education, I started taking notice –and taking notes– whenever I encountered an interesting historical woman I had not yet known. I may make something of this collection some day, but for now I’ll occasionally share my favourite finds with you.
Marie de France (fl. 1160-1215)
Marie ai num, si sui de France. “My name is Marie, I am from France.” One line by her hand is the only clue we have to the identity of the first known French female poet. Marie de France was a noble woman, possibly an abbess, known and perhaps living at the court of King Henri II. She was a French woman in England, writing in Francien and Anglo-Norman, in those post-Hastings years when French, Anglosaxon, Norman and Celtic cultures mingled around the Narrow Sea. Another High Middle Age globalist.
In her Breton lais, 12 narrative poems adapted from the lore of Celtic minstrels, men and women mixed with fairies and werewolves. Her heroines loved fiercely, often outside the confines of marriage, and defied tradition, though they suffered the consequences. Marie was an innovator, writing with a level of detail and imagery heretofore unknown, and was a literary celebrity in her lifetime. “Marie's poetry has caused great praise to be heaped on her and it is much appreciated by counts and barons and knights who love to have her writings read out again and again,” wrote a contemporary. Two centuries before Chaucer, she was a precursor of tales of courtly love and chivalric literature.
“Whoever has received knowledge
and eloquence in speech from God
should not be silent or secretive
but demonstrate it willingly.”
- Marie de France
Photo: Marie de France in a 13th-century illuminated manuscript, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, public domain.